Why Bush is failing

Two-term presidents fail in their second terms largely because of their successes in their first terms.

Two-term presidents fail in their second terms largely because of their successes in their first terms.

Elected to solve certain problems, they usually succeed, winning plaudits and approval sufficient to propel them to reelection. But the fact remains that their success comes at a price: There is nothing left of their original agenda for them to do and no way to control events.

These second-term presidents end up confronting an array of problems that they never pretended they would be able to solve, and more often than not these issues bring them down.

This paradox is amply illustrated by twentieth century history. Only Theodore Roosevelt had a successful second term, largely because he took office after an assassination and required time to develop the progressive agenda that would ultimately shape his presidency.

Woodrow Wilson, elected to accomplish the goals of progressivism, fell over the League of Nations. FDR, elected to stop the Depression, failed in his second term over his attempts to pack the Supreme Court. His place in history was rescued by his successful third term as war engulfed the United States.

Harry Truman became popular by rescuing Europe from communism but fell over the prolonged war in Korea. Eisenhower’s second term was marred by his ill health in recession. Johnson, having passed the Civil Rights Act, fell over Vietnam.

Richard Nixon, having pulled out of Vietnam, fell over Watergate. Ronald Reagan, having cut taxes and won the Cold War, was brought low over the Iran-Contra scandal. And Bill Clinton, having balanced the budget, reformed welfare, and ended the recession, found himself impeached over Monica Lewinsky.

George W. Bush, elected to cut taxes and reform education, accomplished his agenda in his first year in office. Given a new task by Sept. 11, he has succeeded in methodically removing, converting or limiting the governments that sponsor terrorism.

Only Syria, under assault, and Iran, facing a solid international front determined to bar its path to nuclear weapons, remain from the original list. Libya has capitulated, Iraq and Afghanistan are conquered and North Korea appears likely to forswear nuclear ambitions.

We feel safe from attack, perhaps wrongly, four years after Sept. 11. And Bush has accomplished his agenda.

But he is paying the price of his success. He lacks an issue to capture America’s imagination and dominate Washington’s agenda. His Social Security proposal is a nonstarter. His energy and highway bills were largely devoid of innovation and were trivial in scope if not in spending. Bush has nothing left to do.

So he is falling prey to opportunistic infections such as Libby-gate, the Harriet Miers nomination and Hurricane Katrina. For a president to survive his predicament, he must pivot and adopt a new agenda for the balance of his term.

Losing control over events after the early years of his term, Clinton embraced welfare reform and deficit reduction as his priorities and kept control over events until he was undone by Monica.

What Bush needs is a new agenda to capture control of the nation’s politics. Here are some suggestions:

• A fence along to border to stop illegal immigration and a vast expansion of our capacity to apprehend, hold and deport aliens who overstay their visas.

• A tough new drug policy focused on reducing demand by mandating drug testing in schools and incentives for employers to require testing at the workplace.

• A national crusade to free America of oil dependence including promotion of hybrid cars, production and distribution of hydrogen fuels, nuclear power, the installation of recapture mechanisms to make coal burning clean, and expansion of biofuels, solar power and wind energy.

Bush will not recapture the initiative by a battle over Samuel Alito’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Why he did not choose to nominate Judge Janet Rogers Brown, who had already been ruled non-filibusterable by the group of 14 senators who hold the balance of power, is a mystery.

But the blood that will flow from Alito’s nomination will do nothing to move his favorability above 40 percent. It will strengthen his base but will also fortify and enliven the left. Meanwhile, he will remain ghettoized and emasculated with a low approval rate.

Morris is the author of Rewriting History, a rebuttal of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) memoir, Living History.